The overflow shelter at the First Baptist Church on Main Street in Brattleboro. (Carter Vanderhoof/Reformer)
The overflow shelter at the First Baptist Church on Main Street in Brattleboro. (Carter Vanderhoof/Reformer)

BRATTLEBORO -- The chilling temperatures the winter has inflicted on this part of the country are taking a toll on everyone, and local organizations dedicated to helping the homeless are making extra efforts to assist those who are suffering the most.

The Overflow Shelter for the Homeless, operated by both the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center and the interfaith community and based out of First Baptist Church of Brattleboro, has announced it will remain open through April this year, one month longer than usual. Lucie Fortier, the executive director of the Drop In Center in Brattleboro, said the overflow shelter's season typically ends around April 15. She said this will be the second time in its seven-year history the shelter has extended its season.

Fortier also said the shelter started its season earlier than usual -- on Nov. 1, instead of the weekend after Thanksgiving.

According to Fortier, the shelter started seven years ago as a warm place for anyone to stay, and the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Clergy Association six years ago started organizing teams to provide hot meals every day for the shelter's guests. She said various churches, youth groups and organizations have stepped up to the plate, and the shelter never goes a night without hot meals. However, additional meals are needed for dinners on April 13 and 23, as are overnight volunteers for the second shift (1 to 7 a.m.) on Mondays and Wednesdays. According to Dr. Lise Sparrow, the pastor at Guilford Community Church, anyone interested in providing meals can contact Emilie Kornheiser at overflowshelterdinners@gmail.com and overnight volunteers can reach out to Jennifer Haselton at overflow.bratt@gmail.com.

Fortier said she is very grateful to the roughly 30 volunteers who have helped the shelter get through this winter. She said the shelter hosts 20 to 25 people each night, and no one is ever turned away due to lack of space.

The Greater Falls Warming Shelter is expected to close for the season on its usual date (April 15), but Lisa Pitcher, the treasurer of its board of directors, said the shelter opened a couple of weeks earlier than usual last November.

"Around the beginning of the season ... we had to turn some people away because the shelter only holds 10 people," she told the Reformer, adding that this year has been "more consistently busy." She also said the shelter nears its capacity nearly every night, but that "in past years, that wasn't necessarily the case."

The shelter, located at 23 Church St. in Walpole, N.H., is run out of a building owned by Aurelius DiBernardo -- a relative of warming shelter board member and Rockingham Selectboard member Ann DiBernardo -- and Leo Howell. The facility has served as a church, a tae kwondo studio and a delicatessen known as Two Friends Deli. The warming shelter started operating out of the Walpole location two years ago, after being based in three apartments in Gageville the year before. It was previously operated out of the basement of Athens Pizza House Inc. for two winters until some issues prevented the shelter from using the basement for a third consecutive year.

Pitcher, who is also the executive director of Our Place Drop-In Center in Bellows Falls, said the warming shelter's board of directors recently started renting the red building on Church Street year-round, with a slightly reduced rate in the summertime.

During the winter season, volunteers fill nightly shifts from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., or 1 a.m. to 7 p.m. Pitcher said the shelter is always in need of more volunteers. She also said the warming shelter's board is looking for a permanent location -- one it can purchase, instead of rent. Some local churches have actually pledged some money toward buying a permanent space, Pitcher told the Reformer.

She also said she and others are exploring the possibility of a collaborative space in the Bellows Falls area for the warming shelter and Our Place to share.

The National Weather Service more than two months ago started warning about record-breaking cold temperatures in the northern and central parts of the country. The polar vortex, which AccuWeather describes as a "large pocket of very cold air, typically the coldest air in the Northern Hemisphere, which sits over the polar region during the winter season," has been blamed for the frigid temperatures. AccuWeather reports the freezing air was pushed south to the northern United States. The temperatures have been uncharacteristically cold -- even for Vermont.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.